Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part VI
eGovernment solutions provide communities access to information about government services. Citizens can go on-line and pay taxes, look up deeds, renew their driver's licenses, file complaints and more. In my research of government technology, I have found that eGovernment has created demand for application development.
Neil Aggarwal of JAMM Consulting sees increased demand for eGovernment solutions. "We're beginning to receive unsolicited requests for local government applications", he tells Linux Journal. "Unfortunately, the RFPs lack the kind of information needed to respond appropriately. People writing the requests for proposals seem unable to articulate adequately what they need."
JAMM Consulting writes open-source software applications with an emphasis on quality development. Neil refuses to enter an engagement without defining the requirements and specifications before writing a single line of code. He recognizes the need to educate government procurement personnel about his model.
"Delivering an interactive solution will cost less and provide more features if done correctly", he acknowledges. "I see RFPs and realize that someone will offer an inferior product with a lower price, and the agency will never get what they want in the time they want it. They'll also blow the budget." He adds, "beware of the bargain".
In reviewing RFPs submitted to government providers, I immediately realized the dilemma faced by firms like Neil Aggarwal's: the procurement documents lack enough information to submit an adequate response. For example, in one RFP submitted by a large city housing authority, I could not determine what the agency wanted. The agency refuses to engage in a process that would allow the best solution to emerge.
When asked for some clarification, the RFP's author replied that such an exchange would be an "ex parte discussion"--from or on one side only, with the other side absent or unrepresented. One might confuse this response with a refusal to engage in any process that would improve procurement. Labeling a meeting ex parte seems to insulate procurement from having to look at options, which seems like an oxymoron.
Instead of specifications for the application, the agency provided criteria for the winning bid. Following, you can see how the agency determined which bid wins:
Qualifications and Experience
Past Performance on Similar Assignments
Management Plan and/or Approach
Technical or Work Plan
(M/WBE stands for Minority/Women Business Enterprise.)
Immediately, one can see why government procurement rules do not favor the advantages of open-source software solutions. Cost factors comprise only 15 per cent of the total evaluation of a solution, whereas previous experience counts for 50 per cent. Previous solutions tend to rely on Microsoft products.
I would guess that such RFP evaluation criteria fit only project development proposals. In reviewing other RFP documents, I discovered procurement agencies using the same criteria for hiring consultants and temporary contractors. This seems to provide little chance for Linux developers entering the government market.
Linux projects do show up in government agencies. As with most areas of Linux adoption, the projects come from the bottom-up or start at the grass roots level. Managers call these types of projects "skunk works". People credit Alco Hydro-Aeroplane Company with creating the phrase skunk works. The company, later known as Lockheed, had an employee named Kelly Johnson, who coined the term during World War II. Given the assignment of creating the P-38 Lightening, Johnson found a space to build the plane by using Wright engine packing boxes for walls and a circus tent for a roof.
Over the years, skunk works has become the term used for creating projects off the books. Developers with little resources find parts and pieces, download free and open-source software and create an innovative solution for their department, agency and/or enterprise.
Linux government projects have emerged from the abyss of the government procurement process by way of skunk works. Procurement in government agencies demeans such projects. One must doubt that a RFP will ever be circulated for skunk works. Government employees are unlikely to receive recognition from management for such projects.
Inttek of Wilmington, NC, bases its government solutions entirely on open-source technologies. Founded in 1996, the company has won government contracts for the Wilmington Housing Authority and the Dublin County Register of Deeds.
At a recent presentation at Georgetown University, Inttek also introduced a State Unemployment Tax Filing and Payment System by NECTIE. NECTIE specializes in Linux-based open-source technology. They have used and developed Linux software since 1994 an offer a range of government solutions.
The Web-based County Government Register of Deeds system in Dublin County, North Carolina, provides significant precedent because it is built on a LAMP system. You might recall the publicity surrounding the State of Rhode Island's Rules and Regulations Web site. Rhode Island's application also uses a LAMP solution.
LAMP competes with proprietary solutions. It goes head to head with Microsoft's Windows 2003 server, which many people see as a retro product based on earlier servers for the Web. For eGovernment developers, LAMP does not require one to learn a new paradigm, such as .Net.
An excellent installation guide for LAMP can be found on the Linux Documentation site, translated from German. The title of the article, Installing a LAMP System provides a glimpse of the popularity of the term LAMP.
As the Register of Deeds System in Dublin County demonstrates, LAMP technologies deliver tools to deploy web applications rapidly. Apache's web server and Linux have allowed skunk work government developers to create numerous Web sites. In such cities as Houston static web sites have run for several years using Red Hat Linux and Apache.
LAMP uses the open-source MySQL relational database, which is quite popular both inside and outside the Open Source community. MySQL facilitates LAMP's acceptance in government development circles, because MySQL runs on several platforms, including Windows and OS X.
In development of government applications, using Perl, PHP and Python for server-side scripting usually depends on departmental resources. For example, many web developers have used Perl for years with Apache. Human resource recruiters can find an abundance of programmers with Perl experience.
PHP works well for creating dynamic web pages, similar to Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP). Developers also find similarities between PHP and Macromedia's Cold Fusion. Microsoft-trained developers can make the leap easily to PHP, as it add tags to web pages to control how content is displayed.
Most developers would not refer to LAMP-based systems as complex application servers that can deliver large-scale ecommerce sites. Still, the beauty of LAMP lies in its ability to allow developers to take advantage of well-known Web application techniques.
Such development techniques date back to the earliest days of the Web. LAMP can allow governments to deliver eGovernment with straightforward, database-driven sites. Administrators and developers can bootstrap their way into LAMP with Linux and Apache documentation. Many resource sites, such as O'Reilly and the CPAN Perl Archive, provide free code and pre-built modules to reduce development time.
LAMP allows us to forget about reinventing the wheel. Its commonplace existence means open-source Web applications can install and run with minimal configuration. Such applications often require only a few steps, such as creating database tables and passwords. LAMP applications also allow configuration and management through Web browsers.
Some vendors offer customized eGovernment portals using existing resources, without considerable additions of assets or personnel. Such solutions allow government procurement specialists to meet legislative mandates while avoiding skunk works projects. IBM's eGovernment Portal in a Box , for example, consists of Web-based technologies and IBM service and support. Offered by IBM Global Services, eGovernment projects using Portal in a Box can make their way into the culture of state and local information systems.
IBM's eGovernment Portal in a Box uses basic services, navigation and collaboration portlets, plus a newsletter system that runs on WebSphere Portal Server. IBM also uses content and collaboration engines with Lotus Domino. Fortunately, existing legacy information resources and on-line transactions work with the IBM portal.
In the previous segments of the "Linux Access in State and Local Government" series, we discussed the developers' desires to share applications with one another in the spirit of other open-source projects. For example, Richard Brice stated, "I have latched onto and am modeling all of my work after something more important than a single software platform: the culture of the Open Source community, the bazaar style of development and the willingness to cooperate and collaborate openly with others. Open source offers advantages that I just can't pass up".
Richard works for the Bridge and Structures Office of the Washington State Department of Transportation. Like many other open-source advocates, he looks forward to a time when a specialized portal, like School Forge, will emerge for government. In our next installment, we will look at just such a site and the issues that arise around sharing applications.
Tom Adelstein works as a Linux consultant in Dallas, Texas. His current interest lies in the field of web services, security and supporting Linux deployments.